Where does Canada stand on military intervention in Syria?

Matthew Coutts
Where does Canada stand on military intervention in Syria?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is in contact with U.S. President Barack Obama over the atrocities currently being seen in Syria and are discussing what steps to take following reports that the military used chemical weapons againts civilians.

Both leaders agreed that significant use of chemical weapons merits a firm response from the international community in an effective and timely manner," reads a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office.

It is the strongest statement to date made by a Canadian official ahead of a likely military intervention following reports the government used chemical weapons to attack a Damascus suburb last week.

The U.S. has been more assertive. Obama has alluded that military action may be necessary, while Secretary of State John Kerry has come right out and called the attacks "inexcusable."

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for an appropriate level of retribution for the use of chemical weapons. He has called an emergency session of parliament on Thursday, when it is possible a strike will be approved.

[ Related: White House rules out 'regime change' among options for Syria ]

So, where does Canada stand in all this? Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has taken an increasing strong tone on the issue, stating on Monday that he still believes in a political solution, but it is “becoming more and more difficult as the crisis enters a very dangerous new phase.”

Harper’s comments appear to double-down on that sense, but it remains to be seen what form our country’s involvement will take.

Christian Leuprecht, associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University, believes any role Canada might take will be minimal.

In terms of actual military support, Leuprecht says Canada really only has one frigate in the region that could be called upon. More likely than direct participation is the prospect that Canada would step in to support the U.S. on the periphery, perhaps by volunteering support elsewhere in order to free up U.S. assets.

“One way to support an international effort, for Canada, regardless of whether it wants to get involved explicitly in the effort or not … is to contribute air or navel assets somewhere else in the world,” Leuprecht told Yahoo! Canada News.

While it is likely the U.S. is serious about military intervention, the whole affair may come down to “saber rattling.”

[ More Brew: Ontario’s front-line officers permitted to carry Tasers ]

Leuprecht says the West could establish a no-fly zone or launch a punitive strike, although the benefits of either are rather limited. The other option would be an invasion intended on securing any chemical weapons. But the risk would be great and the chance of ending up in a full-scale conflict seems too high.

“Militarily, there are no good options here,” he says.

Stephen Saideman, the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University, suggests the chance of Canada getting too involved is far lower than it was in the Libya operation two years ago.

In a Globe and Mail column, Saideman writes:

The probability of success is low. The Libyan mission should remind people that these efforts take much time and money. Given that the budget situation back in Ottawa is still quite tight, and Mr. Harper’s focus has been on putting the military back in the background as the 2015 election approaches, it is not clear why the Prime Minister would decide that Canada will make a meaningful contribution.

Besma Momani, associate professor at the University of Waterloo's Balsillie School of International Affairs, shares that sentiment. Momani says the likelihood of military intervention is high, but there is little change Canada will play a role other than cheerleader.

"Expect limited tomahawk missiles from U.S. naval bases in Mediterranean that will take out non-urban targets to limit civilian casualties. This will be under a NATO banner with symbolic support from Canada but not much tactical or logistical contribution," Momani told Yahoo! Canada News in an email exchange.

Spoke with @barackobama about the troubling situation in #Syria. I’ll continue to consult closely with our allies. pic.twitter.com/3Z0XN4gkMb

— Stephen Harper (@pmharper) August 27, 2013

On Tuesday afternoon, Harper posted a photo to Twitter of himself during a phone conversation with Obama. By the end of the Syrian crisis, that conversation with either be the extent of Canada’s involvement, or the merely the impetus.

If Harper is serious about making a “firm response,” one suspects it will be the latter.

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